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The New Normal
In The Age Of Trump
The inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, January 20, 2017.
The death of former president George H.W. Bush has underscored in stark terms just how badly our political discourse, ethical standards, faith in our democratic institutions, and grasp of truth itself have deteriorated in the Age of Trump.
Whatever our political convictions, whether we always agreed with him or not, Bush represents something we have lost, a "humble servant" who spent a lifetime of service to our country.
A decorated World War II veteran, the last president to have served in that war, Bush was the 41st president from 1989 to 1993 following two terms as vice president under Ronald Reagan. His record of public service included stints as director of the CIA, chairman of the Republican National Committee, ambassador to the United Nations and envoy to China, as well as a two-term member of the House of Representatives.
He is remembered as having guided America and the world through the end of the Cold War during the collapse of the former Soviet Union, skillfully oversaw the reunification of Germany and the stabilization of Europe, organized the Gulf War coalition to liberate Kuwait, initiated the National Climate Assessment, signed the Clean Air Act, and sometimes defied conservative orthodoxy with compassionate social programs including co-sponsoring the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“George H.W. Bush was a man of the highest character and the best dad a son or daughter could ask for. The entire Bush family is deeply grateful for 41′s life and love, for the compassion of those who have cared and prayed for Dad, and for the condolences of our friends and fellow citizens.”
- Jim McGrath, Bush family spokesman
I posted the following piece just days before the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States.
Now, as we approach the halfway mark of Trump's (first) term, many elements of what was then the alarming novelty of his stunning Electoral College victory and unlikely rise to the presidency, the coarsening of our political and social dialogue, and the "post truth" manipulations of authoritarianism have become the "new normal".
The death of George H.W. Bush should remind us of who we are, what we've represented, and what our responsibilities are to the nation and to the world in the future.
Deplorable Conspiracy Theories
Disturbed, Deceptive & Dangerous
By Ray Cunneff
January 2, 2017
Whether from "fake news" websites, foreign propaganda pipelines or outright lies from candidates and their supporters, disinformation campaigns broadly impacted the 2016 presidential election season.
In August, former New York mayor and Trump supporter Rudy Giuliani announced on Fox News that Hillary Clinton was seriously ill. It was based on nothing more than spiteful rumor and a heavily-edited video that made it look like she was having convulsions, but conspiracy theories that used to only occupy the fringes of political discussion have gone mainstream. The story was picked up and repeated many times.
Conspiracy theories have always been part of American politics, usually among a tiny segment of the electorate who tended to view just about any incident as a "false flag" operation with nefarious motives. But never before have they enjoyed the reach of the internet and social media and the potential to do such great harm. Never before have alternative news sources enjoyed greater credibility and trust than mainstream media in its slide away from journalism toward "infotainment". And a significant percentage of Americans now get their news from Facebook.
The "Pizzagate" scandal, that had prompted a man to fire shots inside a D.C. pizzeria to break up a child sex ring that didn’t exist, was a conspiracy theory that ricocheted from 4Chan, to Reddit, to fake news sites then back to social media throughout October and November. And even after the story was completely debunked, Michael Flynn Jr., the son of President-elect Trump’s choice to be national security adviser, believed the story would be considered true until proven false.
But while hordes of conspiracy bloggers remained convinced of a media cover-up for pedophiles, or that Hillary Clinton had murdered at least five people in 2016, the more foreign policy-oriented bizarro news sites warned of a "final battle brewing" on January 20th when ISIS fighters emerge from their secret U.S. bases or posted a re-tweet celebrating the “liberation of Aleppo from ‘US-backed’ terrorists" by Assad's heroic forces.
And quite abruptly, lifelong anti-Communists have become pro-Russian.
A “rigged” system
A primary message of both the populist "outsider" campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders was that the entire system, economic and political, was rigged. During the primaries, both campaigns maintained that the nomination process was rigged. In August, Trump claimed that in states without voter ID laws in place, fraud would be rampant and people would be voting "15 times". And he asserted that the only way the Clinton campaign could win Pennsylvania is if “they cheat.”
Despite a lack of any evidence of widespread voter fraud, conspiracy theories about fraudulent and rigged elections have led state legislatures across the country to enact restrictive voter ID laws that disenfranchise minority voters. In the general election, Trump deployed supporters to polling stations across America to monitor for fraud and challenge voters’ they found behaved or looked in some way suspicious.
This kind of rhetoric is dangerous. It undermines our faith in the legitimacy of our elections and our government(s). It leads to scapegoating, alienation and hopelessness. These actions based on conspiracy theories also serve to depress the vote, which weakens our democracy.
“There’s something going on”
This is a favorite go-to conspiracy theory of Trump’s, ideal in it's vagueness, allowing supporters to connect the dots based on their own prejudices. Open-ended enough to be used in a variety of circumstances, the dark suggestion that our institutions and our media are not only malevolent, but also engaged in a massive cover-up, provides resonance.
This style of conspiracy theory, leaving the details for people to figure out on their own, is advantageous because it gives supporters less to disagree with. It is useful in an all-purpose way because it allows Trump to avoid specifics, dangerous because it allows people to choose their own villains.
If nothing and no one can be trusted, that somehow everyone except disaffected followers are in on it, this creates a kind of free-floating paranoia, anger and suspicion. In that mindset, friends, neighbors, even family members could all be seen as potentially a threat. Anyone might be a criminal or a terrorist.
Donald Trump launched his campaign with assertions that Mexicans and refugees are to be feared, a danger to both American lives and values. He accused Mexican immigrants of being pawns in a Mexican conspiracy to send murderers and rapists to America. He accused refugees, fleeing their homeland war zones, of working against the government as ISIS agents. He specifically proposed a ban on all Muslim immigration until "we figure out what the hell's going on?".
Most dictators have risen to power, at least in part, by having someone to blame for their society's ills. They demonize and de-humanize their scapegoats as justification for draconian steps against them. But these are especially dangerous because they are a rationale for brutalization and violence. They direct all the rage, distrust, fear and paranoia at those who looked or acted "different".
From the Salem Witch Trials, where innocent women were brutally murdered; to the Red Scare of the 1950's, which saw the United States government violating the rights of countless Americans; to the Japanese internment camps during World War II, when the powerful believe there is a conspiracy against them, real or imagined, their reactions can have terrible consequences.
In this alternative universe of conspiracy theories, fake news has become real news and real news has become fake. Social media will continue the distribution of odious memes and facilitate the bullying of dissenters. Reports of Russian interference in the presidential election will be denied or mocked as irrelevant. Tribalism, nationalism, distrust, xenophobia, racism, misogyny and homophobia will dominate the political discourse.
In a post-truth echo-chamber, facts become little more than nuisances.